It remained for Harry Grossman, A 91-year-old retired tire dealer, to put the Great Event into perspective. In his lifetime, Grossman has been witness to, among other marvels, the creation of the airplane, talking pictures, radio, television, the atom bomb and the FAX machine, but, he said on Monday, night baseball at Wrigley Field "tops them all." Grossman may be forgiven some prejudice in this regard, for it was he, a Chicago Cub fan for 83 years, who symbolically pulled the switch that illuminated the Friendly Confines for the first time in its 74-year history. ''One, two, three," Grossman bellowed into a field mike, as the capacity crowd of first-nighters chanted along with him, "Let there be light!" And, lo and behold, there was.
This touching little ceremony thus transformed baseball's best-loved anachronism into just another ballpark. Oh, the vines are still there, and so are the old hand-operated scoreboard and the bleacher bums, but what most distinguished Wrigley Field from more conventional stadiums was that the game was never played there after dark. Now it will be. There will be no more games "called on account of darkness," no more "homers in the gloamin'," such as the one catcher Gabby Hartnett hit as darkness descended on Sept. 28, 1938, to give the Cubs a pennant. Monday's game with the Philadelphia Phillies was the first of seven night games scheduled for this season. There will be 18 next year and for every year after that until the year 2002, according to an agreement the Cubs hammered out with city hall earlier this year. Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate who owned the team for 45 years and swore that it would never play home games under the lights, is presumably spinning in his grave. Or maybe it was he who sent a furious little windstorm into the artificially lighted park in the third inning Monday night. An inning later, the wind brought rain, and surely to the gum-chewing shade's delight, the game was delayed for two hours and 10 minutes before it was officially postponed at 10:25 p.m., with the Cubs ahead 3-1. Ironically, the first major league night game ever scheduled—between the Phillies and the Reds in Cincinnati's Crosley Field—was also rained out and had to be played the following day, May 24, 1935.
One thing is certain: Light night did not go unrecognized by the national media. There were, in fact, 522 media representatives on hand for the occasion, probably making this otherwise meaningless contest between a fourth-and fifth-place team the most widely covered regular-season baseball game in history. By comparison, there were only 275 newshounds on duty when Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb's career-hits record in 1985. On Monday, 109 newspapers and magazines were represented, along with 49 television stations, 38 radio stations and such popular programs as Today, Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight. This invasion of the media horde left Cub general manager Jim Frey bemused and bewildered. "I think we'll have a lot of fun playing night baseball," he said before Monday's game, "when it ceases to be the Event of the Century." Even the Phillies were impressed by the circus atmosphere. Pitcher Don Carman, for example, darted about during batting practice recording the pregame scene with a video camera. "The important thing, of course, is winning the game. But this is history," he said. "I think you have to be from Chicago and be a Cubs fan to understand this," said Phillie manager Lee Elia, who when he managed the Cubs in 1982 and '83 was not nearly so understanding. It was Elia who, feeling the pressure of fan disapproval, once accused Wrigley's daytime patrons of being layabouts incapable of getting worthwhile jobs.
That the lights were turned on at all represented a final defeat for the citizens of Wrigleyville, the neighborhood surrounding the old park. As long as Philip Wrigley was alive, they felt secure in the undisturbed serenity of their evenings. But the old man died in 1977, and four years later, his family sold the team to the Tribune Company media empire. The new owners were not exactly fans of baseball in the sun. Even though the team drew well at home—more than two million in attendance three of the last four years—the Tribune people contended, and commissioner Peter Ueberroth concurred, that the Cubs could not survive in the modern baseball world without night games. They were opposed by the stadium's suddenly aroused neighbors who, under the banner of CUBS (Citizens United for Baseball in the Sunshine), sought protection in the courts. For the better part of five years, the neighbors won all of the battles in court, including one in which Cook County Circuit Court Judge Richard Curry advised the Cubs' owners that "justice is a southpaw, and the Cubs just don't hit lefties." Eventually, though, the Tribune powerhouse mobilized its lobbying forces, and the opponents of the lights lost the war. With the support of, first, Mayor Harold Washington and then, after Washington's death late last year, his successor, Eugene Sawyer, the compromise ordinance allowing limited night games was passed.
August 14, 1988
And so, on Monday, Harry Grossman, no traditionalist despite his advanced years, happily led the cheering as the lights came on in Wrigley. Then old Cub heroes Billy Williams and Ernie Banks, who said, "I'd rather have lights than no Wrigley Field," threw out the first two balls. It had been a fearfully hot day, approaching 100°, and it was 91° at the 7:01 p.m. first pitch. And then the wind and the rain came, moving one cynic in the press box to suggest, perhaps facetiously, "The next thing they ought to do with this place is put a dome on it and install air conditioning." Oh horrors!